In 1987 my work as a classroom teacher in the junior school of Van Asch College for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children, Christchurch, New Zealand, combined my studies in early childhood education, a few years classroom teaching and most valuable of all, my years of sannyasa life. I found myself surrounded by children who had everything that the average hearing child had, and more deafness, in varying degrees from severe to profound. It was as if every aspect of human nature within these young children was magnified; every gram of sweetness, gentleness, innocence, eagerness to discover and learn and to be loved, as well as aggression, frustration, impatience, naughtiness all magnified by their deafness or hearing impairments.
This was my first teaching experience with deaf children. I thought about the ease of communication when interacting with normal-hearing children and how much vicarious learning takes place through the auditory channels. I appreciated the experiences of sharing a whispered secret; of the games to guess the mysterious sounds coming from inside a sealed box; of walking in a park or in bush land to seek out the sounds of nature in the crunch of snow, in the rustling of leaves, in the birds song, in the roaring ocean. All the gentle and raucous sounds existing in our auditory world would not be part of the deaf childs experience.
I pondered upon some of the immediately obvious difficulties that would arise in the life of a tiny child upon diagnosis of his or her deafness. The emotional upsets in the family and social environment; the mental strains and tensions they would face when fostering and developing communication skill; the pent-up and suppressed energy that comes with coping in a world that is built to support and encourage the normal hearing person etc. My mind began to consider what the ancient science of yoga had to offer these children.
In what ways could yoga practices contribute to the expression of potential talents inherent in these deaf children? For children with pent-up feelings of anger and aggression, for those under pressure to achieve and conform, for emotionally distressed children and for those coming from emotionally charged home environments, the combined physical movements of yoga asanas and the progressive yoga relaxation practices are most appropriate and highly beneficial. Scientific research has shown that simple yoga nidra techniques help to induce deep relaxation, allowing the negative impressions stored in the unconscious mind a chance to come to the surface and dissipate.*1
The initial step seemed to be the practice of yoga nidra so as to induce some degree of mental, emotional and physical relaxation within the child. However, the technique relies on the ability to hear the instructions, so to adapt it for deaf children, alternatives to the usual verbal instructions were required.
Swami Satyananda had developed the present system of yoga nidra from the ancient tantric practice of nyasa in which the yogi adopted a meditation posture and mentally rotated his consciousness systematically through all parts of his body. This practice was to instil higher body awareness for meditation practices. As each part of the body was named and then visualized or touched, a specific mantra was placed in that body part.
From that technique of physically touching each body part came the idea of using the sense of touch to give the yoga nidra instructions to the deaf children. It was a great success. Touch-signs would replace the spoken instructions. It needs to be appreciated that when profoundly deaf children close their eyes communication with the world is virtually lost, except for the sense of touch and feeling.
The first yoga practices taught were to Minnie and Cher, two nine-year-old girls, both profoundly deaf. Their classroom teacher asked if I would teach them both some appropriate yoga practices. Minnie was having great difficulty in her speech therapy classes because her throat was too tight, no deep sounds could be produced in her voice box. Cher had similar problems but not to the same degree. My first thoughts were to teach yoga nidra, simhagarjanasana (roaring lion pose) and some simple pranayama. So, instead of their usual speech therapy Minnie and Cher came three times per week for yoga classes.
The initial yoga nidra practice was very simple. In turn both girls adopted a cross-legged sitting posture in front of me. I explained the instructions in my very limited Australasian Sign-Language and demonstrated the technique to each girl personally, using the newly invented touch-signs, while the other watched intently. Their keen visual perception did not miss a movement and both grasped the practice very quickly. Before they closed their eyes to begin, I gave the following sign-language instructions:
After taking personal instructions and demonstrations, Minnie and Cher practised upon each other several times. Having practised in the cross-legged posture, progressively adding more body parts (buttocks, back, shoulders, abdomen, navel, chest, neck, face, eyes, ears, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, etc.), I then demonstrated shavasana. Once the girls had learnt shavasana, this became the posture in which they practised their yoga nidra.
Using very simple yoga nidra practices as a base I then began to expand the technique to allow for a deeper sense of relaxation. Gradually, breathing practices were incorporated, including breath awareness in the nostrils, throat, chest and abdomen, and later full yogic breath was introduced.
The children needed to understand and to be proficient in each of the different breathing practices before they were included in the yoga nidra sessions. Therefore, it was very necessary to teach breath awareness in each specific body part as separate practices. In this way they would not be overloaded with too many new instructions at one time.
To be able to teach the breathing practices thoracic, abdominal and yogic breathing the instructor should know the practices well and be able to give simple sign-language demonstrations for each practice.
So as not to make the yoga nidra too involved or too long, only one type of breath awareness was given per session. Before every yoga nidra practice, instructions were given as simply and clearly as possible as to what the practice would include. In this way the children knew exactly what to do when the instructor gave the touch-signs. For example, when breath awareness was to be part of the yoga nidra, the children were told that after body rotation had been completed the instructor would lightly stroke the bridge of the nose for nostril breath, or the chest for thoracic breath, or run a finger in a straight line from chest to abdomen for yogic breath. The children had been taught that the breath awareness was to begin in the appropriate body part as soon as the touch-sign was given and was to continue there until that touch-sign was repeated a few minutes later.
Visualization games had been played during other classroom times so the children were well versed in the procedure before it was incorporated into the yoga nidra practice. During these games each child decided on five to ten or more items that they wanted to see behind their closed eyes. With the inner gaze directed to the eyebrow centre (in shambhavi mudra), the child mentally named his or her listed items in correct order while visualising each item one by one.
When visualizations were included in yoga nidra they always came after the breath awareness section or after body rotation, depending on which of these practices were included. To indicate the beginning of the visualization section the instructors palms pressed lightly onto the crown of the students head. Then the children knew to begin visualizing the numerous pictures already chosen in their classroom visualization games.
After the visualizations had been worked through, the children were taught to finish the yoga nidra practice. A simple sankalpa, a resolve, can be added if appropriate. For my situation and students, the best time for the sankalpa was just before the children began to stretch their body at the end of the practice.
The children in the junior school were also taught yoga nidra, with the initial demonstrations and instructions explained in a similar manner to those for Minnie and Cher. All the young children, six and seven years old, became expert instructors and practitioners in a few short lessons. They checked and corrected each others practice until every child knew exactly what to do. The children added extra body parts and even took their yoga nidra practice into the school playground to share with their friends from other classrooms. In the junior school the yoga nidra became part of the daily routine either before or just after lunch, for about ten minutes.
The exact application of yoga nidra techniques depends largely on the individuals physical, mental, emotional (and spiritual) needs. You will appreciate the need of the deaf to be constantly visually alert so as to communicate with each other and those people they come in contact with. Sign language, facial and body gestures, mime and lip reading are some aspects of total communication for the deaf and hearing impaired, and all place heavy demands on visual perception. The yoga nidra practices at Van Asch School gave the children an opportunity to consciously switch off from their external visual world and at the same time allow a revitalization of their body and mind. The teachers and parents present at the yoga nidra sessions constantly commented on the obvious relaxation effect of the practices. The children displayed facial expressions of tranquillity and calmness, relaxation of body parts, especially in the shoulders and hands, and a stillness and quietness afterwards.
During one comprehensive yoga nidra session, when the pre-schoolers were paired up and fully involved in their practice, the Senior Departmental Supervisor of Deaf Education unexpectedly visited the classroom and observed the practice in progress. Later she told me, I never would have believed it was possible for those dear, horrid little monsters to be so calm, relaxed and gentle with each other. It is the nicest experience Ive seen in all my years at this school. Thank you.
After yoga nidra had been established as a daily practice, I also taught Minnie and Cher the practices of bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath) and simhagarjanasana, which I believe have an important role to play in speech therapy practices for the deaf and hearing impaired. Within minutes of teaching these two practices both girls were producing deep, loud and strong sounds from their voice boxes. The instant and positive results were obviously apparent to the girls. They immediately knew their new abilities in sound production without anybody having to tell them, and their self-confidence received a tremendous boost. (Other children may respond more slowly.)
Surya namaskara and a selection of other asanas were also taught at the school; and thats another success story.
The potential for yoga in many areas of education for the deaf and hearing impaired is waiting to be explored. The yoga nidra technique explained here was only a trial run to see what was possible, but I felt that we had cut through a barrier between the outer world of auditory sense perception and the inner realms of the hearing impaired. The children were hearing my instructions through the non-verbal language of touch; the barriers caused by the absence of auditory channel connections were bypassed. The future education of hearing-handicapped children is certain to benefit greatly by integrating the science of yoga into the school curriculum. All that is required are open-minded school staff who are willing to implement the yogic techniques through educators well versed in the science of yoga.
*1 Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Nidra, 6th edn, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, 2001.